Glenn A Baker is rarely lost for words, but meeting Bob Dylan and having Fidel Castro’s heavies point AK47s at him were two occasions when he was truly gob-smacked.
Looking back, once his heartbeat returned to normal, Baker happily includes these incidents in his repertoire of incredible anecdotes spanning a 40-year career in the music business. He is now Australia’s eminent rock historian and an inveterate world traveller.
Disappointingly, however, Glenn A Baker is a gentleman as well as a scholar, so don’t expect to hear any dirty gossip on the rich and famous. It is not that Glenn doesn’t know, but he is not interested in “that kind of stuff”.
“I’ve never been interested in anyone’s private life, more about what makes them tick as performers,” Glenn says with some pride. “All that Kardashian stuff leaves me cold.”
If he were the hard-hitting, confrontational journalist, he would not have got close to icons of the music industry. “They talk to me because they like what I write and respect my knowledge,” Glenn said.
For example, Bob Dylan, one of Glenn’s heroes, invited him backstage during a Sydney concert in 1985 because the usually media shy star liked an article Glenn had written about him in The Bulletin.
“I couldn’t believe it — here I was, face to face with Dylan, and I couldn’t speak at first,” Glenn said. “But I found him to be a warm, welcoming person. Along with Ray Charles, I regard Dylan as a genius.”
He also admires Sir Tim Rice, was surprised at how entertaining Paul Keating — a former rocker — was to interview, but was disappointed when talking to the monosyllabic Chuck Berry.
David Bowie has a special place in Glenn’s heart, and he was saddened when the pop icon died suddenly recently.
“Bowie didn’t take himself too seriously. He was just the boy from Brixton who had made it and fame didn’t change him,” Glenn said.##Cuban rhythms Meeting the formidable Fidel Castro was a heart-stopping moment for different reasons.
That was about 12 years ago when Glenn was in Cuba observing a songwriting workshop with the likes of Burt Bacharach, Mick Fleetwood and Peter Frampton. There was a concert in the Karl Marx Theatre and later they were to meet the Cuban dictator. Earlier that day, Glenn had bought a book of Castro’s speeches.
“We were taken to the palace and feasted on lobster tails and vanilla bean icecream, then we went through security to make sure we weren’t carrying any weapons. Everyone was being polite, saying ‘Hello Mr President’, but I bowled up and said, ‘Hi Fidel, I’m from Australia’. He had formed a friendship with Susie Moroney, our ocean swimmer, and I said I was a writer and he asked what my books were about.
“I said music, family and humour, and he asked if I would send him one. Then, without thinking, I reached into my inside pocket to take out his book for him to sign. At that point, his security guys pointed their AK47s or whatever they were at me, ready to fire. They put their guns down when they realised I was not about to shoot their president. Castro laughed about it — and then signed the book.”
It is that kind of adventure that this music and travel writer thrives on. The thrill of listening to music, meeting those who make it and discovering new places have been Glenn’s driving force since he escaped his public service job to manage the band that became Ol’ 55, at the age of 23. Around that time, Glenn started compiling albums for Festival Records and his knowledge and reputation steadily grew.
Boldness and an encyclopaedic knowledge of modern music has stood Glenn A Baker in good stead, making him take leaps others can only dream about. Those dreams for Glenn began in his bedroom from about the age of 12, when he discovered his love of music.
“We moved around a lot and my little transistor radio and portable record player were about the only things I could take with me, so I listened to music constantly,” Glenn said. It was the early 60s, at the start of the rock era when teenagers were listening to music so foreign to the music of their parents.
His childhood was tough but has made him into the person he is. His father, a war-torn hard-drinking father, died when Glenn was young. Glenn was one of four children, but his younger brother Johnny drowned at his father’s work Christmas party at the age of seven. Glenn was nine and the tragedy took its toll on the family, with his parents splitting up soon after.
Over 10 years, Glenn attended 12 schools as his family moved around New South Wales. Being a solitary lad with few friends, Glenn revelled in music and knew he wanted to be part of the scene.
“Music coming from the likes of The Beatles and Rolling Stones — it was like nothing we had heard before,” Glenn said.
Early on, he thought using his middle initial — he teasingly will not reveal what it stands for — would make him more memorable.“I was inspired by Harry M Miller, the promoter. I thought he was clever using a middle initial. People are more likely to remember Harry M Miller more than plain Harry Miller. I got that at an early age,” Glenn said.
While the use of the middle initial was a deliberate ploy to stand out from the crowd, wearing distinctive caps came out of Glenn’s desire to cover his “follicly challenged” head.
“I had bought a hat or cap overseas — I forget where now — and I was photographed wearing it on one of my book covers. After that, it was expected of me to turn up in a hat so I am now rarely without one,” Glenn said. “I have a whole collection now and usually pick up some on my travels.”
On the day of our interview Glenn was wearing a maroon fez-like cap with black shirt and trousers, the shirt with maroon motifs. After all, he knew there was a good chance the TV news cameras would be on him later in the day when he attended the Jon English memorial service in the city.
The great irony of his life is that it was Glenn’s aloneness that led him to a career that would put him in the spotlight as the “go-to” person when journalists want information on a rock star — sadly these days, all too often after they have died. “There have been too many deaths recently, such as Bowie and Jon English,” said Glenn.
Quintessentially Australian, Glenn is proud of his international fame — having been named Rock Brain of the Universe three times by the BBC — but, no matter how far he travels, he likes to call Australia, and the Hills, home.
Despite his disruptive schooling, Glenn has a formidable memory and a thirst for adventure, having travelled to more than 100 countries, many of which he has detailed in his travel books.But, no matter how many performers he has befriended or how many countries he has visited, the father of six feels family is the most important part of his life. Raising his family with wife Lorelle in rural Kenthurst, Glenn has eschewed the rock lifestyle of heavy partying.
“That life never appealed to me. I like the peace and quiet of the Hills, which has been a great place to raise my kids,” Glenn said.
Sadly, his long marriage to Lorelle ended in 2009, the same year he had open heart surgery. “You could say that 2009 was my annus horribilis,” is all Glenn will say about those major events in his life.
So, does the confidante of rock stars, the happy traveller, have any regrets?
“I really wish I had met Elvis and John Lennon,” he laments. “And I wish I had not been too young to see the Beatles when they visited Australia in 1964, when I was 12.”
Not that he is complaining, grateful that a childhood passion has sustained him through an interesting life. And he is far from done yet. ❐